The Mavericks’ series against the Thunder presents a number of striking contrasts-youth and experience, isolations and ball movement, and of course fast and slow. The Thunder have played at the 4th fastest pace in these playoffs, averaging 90.8 possessions per game. The Mavericks have played at the 3rd slowest pace, averaging just 85.6 possessions per game. Conventional wisdom says the team that controls tempo, forcing the game towards their preferred speed, should prevail. By my count, each team has been averaging 89.3 possessions through the first two games. Although this shades towards the Thunder’s faster speed, it falls in between their two averages and fitting conventional wisdom, we have a 1-1 split.
We usually think of pace as a marco trend, a statistic which is discussed in the context of a team’s season long numbers. However, pace is anything but static. The speed at which a team plays will fluctuate, game to game, quarter to quarter, even minute to minute. The pace number we assign to a team, is really an averaging out of all those small variations. Shaking off the mantle of typical, I wanted to look at pace as a micro trend to see how much of an impact it’s having.
To break Games 1 and 2 into blocks of time, I used Popcorn Machine’s GameFlow charts. These charts conveniently identify runs for each team, as well as the chunks of time in between. For each block of time, I used play by play logs to calculate the pace as well as the score change from the Mavericks’ perspective.
|Seconds||Game Time||Possessions||Pace||Score Change||Game|
Across the first two games of the series, 46.3 minutes consisted of chunks of time with the Mavericks being outscored by the Thunder. 47.8 minutes were chunks where the Mavericks either outscored the Thunder or played them even (I obviously lost just under a minute in my rounding somehow). For the time the Mavericks were in the negative, the average pace (weighted by the length of each time block) was 94.96. For the time the Mavericks were in the positive, the average pace was 86.76. When they’ve been able to keep the pace reasonably slow they’ve generally been ahead. When they start to let it get away from them, they fall behind.
The crisp offensive execution which has pushed the Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals, the pick-and-rolls, ball movement, cuts and screens, take time. When the Mavericks are goaded into an up-tempo burst offensively, it can take them away from what they do best. It limits them on the defensive end of the floor as well. They don’t have the athletes to keep up with Oklahoma City in transition, and a quicker pace makes it much more difficult to implement the zone they’ve used in spots.
The Mavericks can maintain control in a few ways. The first is by limiting their turnovers, which they’ve done very effectively. In both games the Mavericks turned the ball over on around 14% of their possessions. The second is by patiently running the sets, and scoring efficiently. When the Mavericks are calmly working through their offensive progressions, it slows the pace. Made baskets keep the Thunder from runnning, allowing the defense to set, and creating lengthier possessions for the Thunder offense.
In Game 1 the Thunder’s runs, with more than a five point advantage, lasted an average of 126 seconds. In Game 2 those same runs lasted an average of 150 seconds. It took the Mavericks a little bit longer to re-assert control and bring the pace into their comfort zone. They struggled to make shots, going 20 of 55 on attempts not at the rim, which gave the Thunder that chance to push the ball. Interestingly, the Thunder’s 11-2 run mid-way through the fourth quarter was played at a very slow pace, 70.7. Their second unit plays a much slower game, mostly due to the trade-off of Eric Maynor for Russell Westbrook. The tempo was right in the Mavericks wheelhouse. But they couldn’t take advantage and their offensive execution fell apart, with three missed jumpshots and a turnover.
This is something of a chicken-egg discussion. Pace is a reflection of a lot of factors. There is a fine line between the game speeding up because the Mavericks struggled, or the Mavericks struggling because the pace sped up. Regardless of which is the cause, a faster tempo seems like it will go hand in hand with a Thunder advantage. Composure, patience, awareness, attention to detail; all the thing which helped the Mavericks brush aside the Lakers, will be crucial over the next two games in Oklahoma City.